Hair: the styling of society

Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Hair is essential to a face as a frame is to a picture.” Humankind’s fascination with hair dates back to the earliest of civilizations and lives on in the trends of today.

Hairstyles have evolved from a display of power and wealth to an expression of self and individuality.  Hair has been used as a medium to make political statements, rebel against social norms, and to tell one’s story.  Through the years hair has been braided, coloured, teased, and adorned to reflect not only the fashions of the day, but also the values of the era.

Sources of inspiration for hairstyles over the centuries have come from conquered tribes, majestic monarchs, and Hollywood idols.  Hair has signified religious sanctity, and also women’s rights.  Whilst hairstyles and people’s reasons for them have changed drastically throughout the centuries, the societal significance of hair has remained constant.


Roman hairstyles had modest beginnings usually with simple tresses bound with a band on top of the head.  However, as the Roman Empire expanded, the grandeur of the resulting triumphal processionals gave women an outlet for more lavish hairstyles. 

The desire to display wealth, power, and status led to elaborate creations to enhance the woman’s appearance.  As clothing was often not a signifier of a woman’s status, the Romans turned to intricate hairstyles to flaunt their power.  A 'natural' style was associated with barbarians, whom the Romans believed had neither the money nor the culture to create these styles.  The more complex and unnatural the hairstyle, the more it was a reflection of the woman’s wealth. Women who could afford the expense piled their hair high, using wires, dyed their hair blonde, red, or black, created intricate curls, and adorned their hair with flowers, jewels and pearls.


The Elizabethan period saw a dramatic change in culture as England transitioned from the fiercely religious Middle Ages and into a more secular society that embraced science, politics, and art. The veils of the Medieval period signifying religious modesty were cast aside for the first time in England as young married women went about with their hair uncovered. 

Hairstyles of the Elizabethan era were characterized by high, frizzed hair and often placed over wires or pads to create a heart-shaped frame around the head.  These hairstyles were made easier when the first metal hairpins were invented in England in 1545.  The ideal hair was considered to be fair or red in colour and preferably naturally curly as inspired by the Queen herself.  Women would supplement their own hair with natural hairpieces sometimes rumored to have come from horses or even children’s hair.  Wigs became fashionable in the last quarter of the century, being first introduced to England around 1572.

17th Century Women

The 17th Century saw a departure from the hairstyles made popular by Queen Elizabeth I and a move towards the latest French trends.  Inspired by Charles I’s wife, Henrietta of France, the height of fashion for women was to part the hair in the middle, flatten the top, then frizz and curl each side of the head.  Following the English Civil War (1642-1651), the Puritanical beliefs about modesty  led Parliamentarian supporting women to wear their  hair short and straight or bunched up underneath a  white cap.  This abstinence in extravagant style came to an end in 1660 when Charles II was restored  to the throne.  His use of wigs renewed public  interest in flamboyant styles.  Materials such as horse,  yak, and human hair were customary in the wigs of the affluent. The last decades of the 17th century introduced the “Fontange” as it became  the most fashionable women's hairstyle with a mass of curls above the forehead that were supported by wire and decorated with a headdress of standing lace. The style was created by the Marquise de Fontange when her coiffure was ruined while out hunting. Versions of the Fontange were worn by all ranks of English society.

17th Century Men

Engraving of Abraham Cowley by W. Faithorne

Engraving of Abraham Cowley by W. Faithorne

Political alliances dominated mens’ appearances in the 17th century.  The Royalist “Cavalier” style was characterized by shoulder length hair.  Ribbons and bows were often used and “lovelocks,” a small lock of hair that cascaded from the crown of the head down over the left shoulder, were treated as special features.  The Parliamentarian “Roundheads” typically wore their hair cropped.  When the English monarchy regained sovereignty, men kept their hair long and curly and often used “periwigs” as a substitute to their own hair.  Some men, in particular soldiers and travellers, began to tie back the long hair at   the nape of the neck into a pony-tail. With wigs gaining wide popularity in both France and England, the first wigmaker’s guild  was established in 1655.  

18th Century Women

Mrs Frederick, engraved by J.R. Smith

Mrs Frederick, engraved by J.R. Smith

The Fontange of the 17th Century gradually saw a reduction in size and height as women for the first half of the 18th Century generally wore their hair small and close to the head.  Hair was worn in soft curls or waves, with little to no height.  Most Frenchwomen powdered their hair with white powder; Englishwomen generally left their hair unpowdered.  At the back, the hair was generally arranged in small curls, a twist or braid worn pinned to the head, or pulled up smoothly.

The formality of the 17th and early 18th Centuries eventually gave way to the frivolity of the latter half of the 18th Century as hairstyles rose to great heights and adornments ranged from ribbons and jewels to flowers and stuffed animals.  The “a la Fregate” made its debut in this century with a model war ship riding on rippling waves of hair.  Women rarely wore whole wigs as they were intended for men.  Instead, they hired professional hairdressers who added false hair to their natural locks.  Women were expected to augment their own hair with false hair, padding, powder, wires, and ornaments.  Because these hairstyles were often held into place using lard, rats were attracted to the creations and made homes of  the coiffure.

18th Century Men

18th Century men wore wigs for formal events, or, for informal occasions, hair was worn long and powdered, brushed back from the forehead and tied back at the nape of the neck with a black ribbon.  Introduced by Frederick William I for “the convenience of the soldiers” of his army, this “tie wig” is the style most usually associated with the 18th Century. By the 1780s, young men were setting a fashion trend by lightly powdering their natural hair. Hair powder was originally used mostly as a degreaser.  White haired wigs were popular because they were expensive and rare, and so men began to use white powder to color their wigs and hair, as it was less destructive than dye.

After 1790, both wigs and powder were reserved for older more conservative men. In 1795, the English government put a tax on hair powder of one guinea per year which ended both the fashion for wigs and powder by 1800. In France the association of wigs with the aristocracy caused the fashion for both to disappear during The Terror of 1793.

Victorian Women

Queen Victoria was a fashion icon in her own right. In the early years of her reign, she inspired the “Apollo Loop” in which a plain or coiled plait of false hair was attached onto wires to create eye-catching loops worn vertically on top of the head.  But the use of elaborate wigs made way for cleaner, gentler looks. The Victorian period of fashion  was about living more simply than the previous era. Hairstyles eventually became more natural and demure with hair parted in the middle, drawn into a bun or coil with curls allowed to fall loosely at the sides of the head. 

Hairstyles mirrored the aspirations and social changes occurring  within society during this era.  The Industrial Revolution saw the rise  of the middle classes and brought new fashions for clothes and hair.   By the 1850s women wore hairstyles incorporating hairpieces  purchased from the new department stores.  Additionally, women  began using soaps to clean their hair, but this act would strip away oils, leaving the hair stringy and dry.  Products to restore hair’s lustre included vegetable oil and even bear grease.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Marcell Wave invented by Marcel Grateau’s “curling iron,” became a popular hairstyle which enabled to create a more natural looking wave as opposed to a curl. Victorians associated hair with life and love, therefore, it was traditional for women to incorporate lockets of hair into mourning  jewellery after the passing of a loved one.

Victorian Men

Albert Smith - original by Field Talfourd

Albert Smith - original by Field Talfourd

Throughout much of the Victorian Era most men wore fairly short hair from just over the top of the ears at the start of the period to a moderately close cut towards the end of the 19th Century.  This short hair was often accompanied by various forms of facial hair including moustaches, side-burns, and full beards.

Victorian men used different kinds of waxes and oils to keep their facial hair in shape, including wood frames used at night to keep their moustaches shaped. A clean-shaven face did not come back into fashion until the end of the 1880s and early 1890s.

20th Century Hair

The 20th Century saw much social change for women; from obtaining the right to vote in many countries to sexual liberation in the 1960s. With each passing decade, women styled their hair to reflect their increasingly liberated lifestyles.  Growing affluence at all levels of society throughout the century created a constant demand for novelty.  Changes in hair styling now occurred regularly throughout the decades.

Beginning with the Edwardian Era, the hairstyles at the turn of the century were characterised by a romantic, soft fullness created by back-combing and the use of hair pads called “rats.” However, the ‘Roaring Twenties’ abandoned the constraints of Victorian and Edwardian life and women caused a stir by going to barber shops to get their hair cut into a bob. The free spirited young women of the twenties shortened their hair as well as their skirts and enjoyed themselves. Hollywood became an important interest during the late thirties and forties and remained a major influence on hairstyles throughout the century as many women wished to emulate their screen idols’ style.

In the first years of the 20th Century, some men were still wearing moustaches, but usually with short hair. The 1920s style, however, was a clean shaven face and flat-combed, short hair. Oils and Pomades helped men style their hair in the 1930s and 40s. 

Much like the women of the 20th Century, men also turned to popular culture for hairstyle inspiration.  As Hollywood films emerged, men’s hairstyles were often influenced by leading male actors, such as James Dean, Clarke Gable, and Elvis Presley.

By the 1960s, a breakdown of formality and of many previously accepted standards caused more diversity in hairstyles than any previous decade.  Women’s hairstyles ranged from the poufy Bouffant to long, sleek and straight hair.  Improvements in hairstyling tools and inventions of hair styling products made possible a wide range of styles from which a woman could choose.  Musicians, such as the Beatles, were highly influential in the styling of men’s hairstyles as well, inspiring such haircuts as the ‘mop’. 

In the closing decade of the 20th century, the themes from the 1900s in hairstyling were ever-present.  Women still looked to Hollywood for inspiration as “The Rachel,” sparked by American actress, Jennifer Aniston, was the most requested hair style of the decade.  The advent of the internet in the 1990s allowed styling ideas to spread globally within minutes.


Special thanks to Denise Wald, guest curator and MA student at Royal Holloway, University of  London, for all her hard work and dedication.